Keen Thinking

Robert Earl Keen won't dumb down his music for country consumption.

Listeners accustomed to the one-dimensionality of many country composers may be taken aback by this resolution. After all, Keen's murderer-protagonist escapes prison and/or death, and the environment in which he finds himself is not devoid of hope. Such ambiguity is typical of Keen, who prides himself on steering clear of predictability.

"Why does the bad guy always have to get nailed?" he asks. "Is there, like, a rule in screenplay writing or songwriting that he always has to get caught? I don't think so. Like in this thing, the guy ends up alone, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a chance for redemption. He's got every day, and life can change--for anyone."

The biggest change of late for Keen came with his signing to Arista Austin after more than a decade on independent labels. Whereas most artists who make similar transitions downplay such shifts in affiliation, Keen comes right out and admits that they were sizable--and not always positive.

"Here's one thing," he says. "Sugar Hill was owned by one man who makes all the decisions. If I wanted to find out something, I called him directly at his home, and he would take in all the information and think about it--and after he gave you his answer, that would be it; if it was no, it was no, and if it was yes, then you'd move on. But that wasn't the way it was with Arista. I got a lot of stuff from them that I'd never gotten before, like posters, nifty artwork, postcards that I could send, stuff like that. But when it came time to getting an answer, well, it usually took about two weeks, and that became frustrating. That's because it was started in Austin but run out of Nashville, so you had this whole committee of people. And it's easier to deal with one guy than to deal with three or four guys.

"They didn't have all their ducks in a row, either. They hired publicists and radio guys for the label, and some of them were terrible, but the guys in charge didn't know it. And when they figured it out, well, these guys were pretty young, so they sat around and held their hands for a while instead of just getting rid of them."

At this point, Keen isn't sure how much damage was done to the Picnic campaign as a result of these problems: "I never got much radio airplay in the first place, so when I didn't get any again, I was used to it," he claims. "And I sold between 60,000 and 70,000 records, which is the exact amount that my last three records sold."

Because the overhead at Sugar Hill is much lower than it is at Arista, Keen likely made less money on the album than he would have under his previous circumstances. Nonetheless, he feels that moving to Arista was the right decision. In his words, "I felt like I needed to do it just because it was a little more stature. After a while, people think, 'If this guy's so great, why doesn't he go to a major label?' And things have gotten better. Now everything's being run out of Nashville, so decisions are down to about a week."

Thus far, Arista Austin has put no pressure on Keen to alter his approach to fit the hot-country marketplace, and that's the way he likes it; he intends to follow his own creative path if for no other reason than that he despises the alternative. "I don't feel part of country music today," he says. "How could I? Have you checked out a country radio station lately? Doesn't that stuff make you just throw up? It's just so awful--and what's even worse, they're all the same formula. They sound like crap, and none of them are interesting. That's what makes them different from other crappy country songs. Go back and listen to country music from the Seventies or something and you'll realize that they had some really bad stuff--but it was laughingly bad. Like in 1974, the country song of the year was 'Country Bumpkin,' by Cal Smith. Do you remember that song? It went, 'Hello, country bumpkin, how's the frost out on the pumpkin?'" He cackles. "Man, when I used to hear that, I'd just fall out of my chair because it was so charmingly horrible. But the songs now aren't charmingly horrible anymore. They're just awful--that's all."

In contrast to the quasi-novelty ditties that clog current country radio, Keen's work is dense with detail. "I like to pack in a lot of stuff, because I think it's more interesting," he concedes. "I guess when it comes to writing songs, I'm not inspired by listening to other songs as much as I am by reading short stories and novels. Sometimes there are sections of books where I completely don't understand what's going on, but at the same time, it might inspire some feelings and thoughts and some sort of emotion. And I really like that. I don't try to do that much in songwriting, but sometimes it just happens."

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